Detained at Ben Gurion Airport

Approx read: 8 mins

Marc T. walks us through surviving security and being detained at Ben Gurion Airport.

Hiya. Who are you? What do you do?

Hi, I’m Marc, I’m 24 and I’m currently volunteering for a refugee NGO in Malta.

What inspired you to go to Jerusalem in July? Malta wasn’t hot enough for ya?

Good question! It’s a bit long-winded actually. The short answer is a festival in Tel Aviv, but I decided on a few things I wanted to see and do across Europe(ish), and stubbornly decided not to let the timing or distance get in the way.

I ended up with this ridiculously convoluted plan which took me through Budapest, Istanbul, Israel, Palestine and then France. The best bit is that the concert had actually been cancelled after I bought all my tickets, which I only learned when I touched down in Tel Aviv. So I found myself with an extra couple of days on my hand to explore somewhere new: hence Jerusalem and Bethlehem!

We heard you had some excitement getting into the country. Explain.

Well, I’m sure it was exciting for someone. The Israeli authorities took interest almost from the moment I landed and chose me (surely on the strength of my personality?) to keep them company for the following seven hours. Nothing suggested I would have any problems until I was passing through passport control and was unexpectedly asked a series of questions about my grandparents. The customs officer then asked me to wait in a partitioned section to the side of the main concourse while he disappeared with my passport. After about thirty minutes of aimless wandering around, it dawned on me I was about to receive the authentic Israeli hospitality experience so famed around the world.

Why do you think you were detained?

I’m lucky enough to have been born in Algeria and to be blunt, look “ethnically challenged”- that is to say I look Arabic. I have since learned that the League of Arab States currently maintains a long-term boycott of Israel. But I would like to stress that I travelled on a British passport with no mention of my roots, other than my city of birth, which had gone unnoticed until I mentioned it. I probably also didn’t help myself by travelling alone as a young male to a (still unbeknownst to me) cancelled festival.

I showed them my ticket, and after being bombarded with questions about Macklemore’s politics, a quick Google search discovered that the performance was in fact no longer taking place due to scheduling conflicts. Good thing I’m organised!

What was it like?

It was a very tedious experience, mostly taken up by waiting and watching other people cross the very same barriers which seemed so achievable earlier that morning. I was made to wait in a small partitioned corner of the arrivals hall. The actual area wasn’t particularly intimidating or uncomfortable, but as the hours mounted up, the warm water-cooler, noisy hum of air-conditioning and sticky plastic benches began to wear my patience. The space was crammed with frustrated people and their luggage, all with varying hopes of avoiding the next flight back, so you can imagine what the atmosphere was like.

A great summary of the customs officers’ mindset was the way they split a church group I befriended from Uganda. They waited more than 24 hours for a decision. They shared exactly the same backgrounds, credentials and plans; three were granted entry and five deported on the spot. As far as I could make out, none were given any kind of coherent justification for this decision.

How did you feel?

More than anything, I felt like a child outside the headmaster’s office, awaiting my fate while hoping for mercy. The crucial difference between this and my countless school punishments, however, was that I hadn’t done anything wrong, for once! The customs officers took their sweet time in making their decisions, pathetically revelling in their power in only the way someone deeply unhappy in their job can. I patiently alternated smiling sympathetically at my fellow detainees and using the Wi-Fi to moan incessantly on WhatsApp, or Google “How to say ‘I’ve never even heard of the West Bank’ in Hebrew.”

At this point, it’s worth noting that the tone and behaviour of those in charge of us was incredibly petty and vindictive. If I was being generous, I would describe this as a transparent exercise in power dynamics. Maybe a more accurate picture would be something closer to frustrated bullies throwing their weight around. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. I personally found it quite funny, but fully understand why others, with more to lose than a holiday, wouldn’t.

How did you not go crazy from boredom?

The customs officers were very inconsistent about how much supervision we needed. To be honest, I think the threat we posed was directly proportionate to their boredom thresholds. To start with, I could wander freely between the security offices, toilets and some weird modern art installation.

With no apparent inspiration, an official then decided we would all need to be escorted at all times. I chose to reward his diligence by going at the toilet every fifteen minutes or unnecessarily stretching my legs until he reevaluated his decision. Amazingly, it worked and he changed his mind within the hour. It sounds childish, but to me that was a proud victory!

Were you scared, annoyed, or both?

I was more frustrated than anything because I had three onward connections from Israel and I hadn’t even travelled directly from Malta, so couldn’t really afford to fork out for a new plane ticket to get back. That’s where I drew the line, anything else was fine as long as it made for a funny story. Most of this behaviour was quite obviously for show and completely unnecessary.

Got any detainee tips? (‘Don’t get detained’ doesn’t count)

I can’t speak for every situation but, I mean, it helps to be white. Jokes aside, as long as you know you haven’t done anything wrong and you keep reminding yourself of that you should be fine. At this point, it’s mostly out of your hands. In retrospect, being polite, patient and remaining calm can only help your position.

Describe the disconnect between Israeli security and the people outside the airport.

Most people I spoke to outside the airport were perfectly nice and friendly. Jerusalem seemed incredibly liberal actually, with what looked like a thriving LGBT scene alongside the Orthodox Jewish community. Naturally there will always be jobsworths and idiots, but the young people I spoke to just wanted to live peaceful, normal eyes and rolled their eyes at the politics around them. Even the heavy-handed security forces were occasionally disarmed by a smile or witty comment.

3 things the guidebooks don’t tell you about Bethlehem:

I probably should have read a guidebook before going, to be honest, so I’m going out on a limb here. I think I’ll start with the not too surprising fact that Palestine was incredibly welcoming! Everyone wants to help, answer your questions and show you around. This seemed to be born from a genuine interest in new faces, and the fact that everyone is so hospitable. Taxi drivers would get out of their cabs and hand out maps if they thought you were lost, for instance!

Secondly, it was remarkably easy to get in. The road border effectively polices itself, with the risk Israeli nationals would likely face from the IDF if caught in a Palestinian National Authority Area A. For me, however, the process was no more complicated than paying 7 Israeli shekels and hopping on a 45-minute bus to Bethlehem. Walking out through the checkpoint was a different story though.

Lastly, there was a very surprising pragmatism in the air, marked by the many who work in Israel every day and subject themselves to endless frustrating queues at the checkpoints. That’s not to say political frustrations were forgotten, simply put to one side in the name of peace and the semblance of a normal life during the work week.

Tell us about Banksy. How has he influenced artists in the region?

Banksy was a very recognisable name in the region, and a welcome influence. Following the influx of political tourists who followed Banksy’s famous murals on the Wall, it’s almost possible to navigate completely using the directions of his art in the West Bank. I met a really cool local called Mahmoud, who ran and co-owned the Banksy Shop Behind The Wall in Bethlehem. Banksy has used his art to draw attention to the Wall, not the other way around, making sure to promote the voices of local people and the Palestinian street art scene.

Is the graffiti on the Wall absolutely sick?

The graffiti on the wall is stunning; it’s both beautiful and powerful. I’ve attached a few pictures but they don’t even begin to do justice to the reality. I think it’s also quite powerful that in building the Wall, Israel has inadvertently built the biggest and widest publicised canvas for political protest.

How do people who live near it react to the Wall? Tourists?

I certainly don’t want to speak out of turn, or for anyone else, but they seemed very supportive and understanding. I imagine they accept the trade-off of publicity and trade that goes with being an important tourist site. Any publicity of their conditions and struggle can only be positive, right?

Did you feel safe in crowds/at night/on public transport?

Completely. I’ve felt less safe in London and Malta when surrounded by tourists, to be honest. Paradoxically, I actually felt the armed IDF presence posed a greater security risk than anything else, partly in due to their heavy-handedness, along with being obvious and visible targets in the more populated areas.

Editor’s note: Marc wasn’t detained for his good looks and sparkling personality. Israeli security communicates throughout the airport by affixing bar-coded stickers to passports. According to ‘1 is reserved for white Jewish Israelis, 2 is for white Jewish non-Israelis and friendly internationals, 3 is a suspicious Israeli or international, 4 is sometimes given to non-white Israelis, 5 is for Arab Israelis or questionable internationals, and 6 is for Palestinians, Muslims, and hostile internationals. Hostile is defined as not Zionist or suspected of questioning Zionism. Anything above a 3 means interrogation.’